Dare to be different, and you will put yourself in a position to succeed.
“The moment of enlightenment is when a person’s dreams of possibilities become images of probabilities.”
– Tennis pro Vic Braden, known as the Pied Piper of Tennis.
I have a question for you: Would you prefer to be like many other people with a limited range of opportunities to make money or enjoy a satisfying career or private life, or would you prefer more—as in more opportunities, a more satisfying career, a more fulfilling private life?
In careers and in life, often the best way forward isn’t to do as others are doing, but to try something different. This helps you to stand out. People will remember you as distinct, and not just another person doing the same old thing. With that, more interesting opportunities will come your way.
When I started working as a staff writer for a luxury magazine for very rich people, I wanted to fit in. I wanted to dress like others there, in their sharply creased shirts and colorful ties. I wanted to look like a successful person and act like a successful person. I wanted to be a successful person.
My boss played golf with other bigwigs at the magazine, and golf was definitely a rich guy’s game. That would be a sure-fire way to fit in, I thought. But I didn’t play golf. It would take far too much money and time to learn to play golf. This bummed me out, until I remembered what someone told me about success: No matter what you aspire to be, do something to stand out, even just a little.
I had wanted to play tennis since I was a kid, but my family couldn’t afford that. My Dad and I played a rudimentary version of tennis in our narrow driveway, with an imaginary net. He was great to play imaginary net tennis with me (though I never won the disputes about whether a ball would have cleared a real net).
So this was my chance, right? I joined a health club and took some tennis clinics group lessons. After learning the basics I played matches against my friend, Chris, who had been the sports editor of a newspaper where we had both worked. Chris had been playing tennis since he was a kid, and he had played on his high school tennis teams. He was good. Over the course of two long years, I proceeded to lose every match to him. Every. Single. Match. Even the few I managed to keep close.
One time Chris brought a broom to a match. He said it was to sweep the court of debris. Then, after defeating me in all three sets, he marched around with the broom held high, signifying his sweeping of me. At least one of us had a good laugh.
At the time I had started traveling for the magazine, and I noticed there were expensive tennis resorts that people went to, for a few days to a week or more. These upscale tennis “camps” doled out intensive instruction to club-level players seeking to hone their games.
I devised a plan. I asked my boss if I could write an article on the top tennis “camps” in the country. I would travel to these resorts, receive training from some of the top names in tennis, and write a big feature on it. As a side benefit, maybe just once, I might defeat my friend Chris at tennis.
And the magazine let me do it! I was going to get a load of free tennis instruction from the top pros in the country. Then I would use my newfound expertise to vanquish Chris on the court.
You Expect to Be Good in 10 Minutes?
I was excited about my big tennis feature. I eagerly booked travel to five tennis resorts, spread out throughout the United States and over the course of several months. My tour started at John Gardiner’s Tennis Ranch and Spa, in the desert hills near Phoenix, Arizona. I was on a travel junket, meaning a group of journalists were flown in to review the resort. A group of us played some tennis, practiced shots and received some tennis advice, but the place was primarily a resort and spa. We each had private adobe suites. What I remember most was the deep-muscle sports message that made me melt into my dinner chair.
Next up was Sugarbush in Vermont. Sugarbush is known as a ski resort, but at the time it had been rated as a top tennis “camp” by a big tennis magazine. The regimen at Sugarbush was physical, with more emphasis on play at net, with volleys and half volleys and smashes hit out of the air—and often running around and doing all of it. We worked a lot on footwork and preparing for a shot by being set, on your toes and pivoting quickly to hit the ball. The drills were fun, and I liked playing at the net.
This tennis thing wasn’t so bad. I was also getting into top shape.
John Gardiner’s Tennis Ranch and Sugarbush were good warm-ups, but it was time to get serious.
That meant a tennis “academy” in Florida, and run by one of the most famous names in tennis, Nick Bollettieri, who had been the coach of tennis great Andre Agassi. The Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy, now called the IMG Academy, was not for the faint of heart. It was considered the boot camp of tennis, consisting of eight hours a day of intensive training: running profusely, hitting profusely, sweating profusely.
On my very first day there, minutes into the camp, another player hit a serve to me. I barely swiped at it as it rocketed by. Then another. And another. Each loud thwaaap! of the ball bouncing past me felt like a punch to the gut. I had made a terrible mistake; I was easily the worst player there. Some of the other players seemed to resent hitting the ball to me. I mean, these guys were young, top-notch players trying to become pros. And that wasn’t my worst mistake.
My worst mistake was going there in late summer. The tropical heat ratcheted up to 95 degrees with about 90 percent humidity, in full sun. Each time I stopped for a drink, gnats and other bugs swarmed me. I felt like rotting fruit. All I wanted to do was run again.
And they ran us: back and forth, back and forth, on forehands, and backhands. Those basic parts of my game needed so much work, the instructors completely broke down my swings and taught me new ones.
I didn’t think I was a good enough player to be humbled, but it was humbling, to say the least.
Here is a universal rule: Whenever you learn something new, you are almost always going to be bad at it. Boston Philharmonic Conductor Benjamin Zander speaks of his first violin lesson, and how frustrated he became. He said he wanted to quit because he was so bad. Surprised, his teacher responded, “You expect to be good in 10 minutes?”
You have to keep doing something—even if you don’t do it well—to get good at it. Over and over, back and forth, forehand and backhand, making mistake after mistake until you get it right on a consistent basis. You often have to do things thousands of times to become good at it. Bestselling social psychology author Malcolm Gladwell and many others theorize a 10,000-hour rule about becoming an expert at something. That doesn’t mean you’ll be bad at something that long; it just takes about that long to progress from beginner to apprentice to becoming proficient and finally mastering your craft. This process can take years, and the mental discipline to stick with it is required throughout. You’ll need some mental toughness simply to climb in ability from novice to intermediate.
It’s harder still if you’re being forced to break previous habits and learn a new way, which I was doing with my tennis strokes. It’s always easier to go back to the bad old way and get lucky with it at times, rather than to learn a new way and be bad full-time for a while. And I was bad. I stunk. My clothes stunk. My tennis game stink … stank … stunk.
One of the tennis pros at Bollettieri’s must have seen me looking downcast during a break, and he pulled me aside. He said my swing would come, but it was more important to address the ball. Not as in “Hello, ball!” Though this became my goofy way of remembering it. Addressing the ball is all preparation: a good player positions for a shot with diligent and always-ready footwork, on the balls of your feet, so your shoulder is in line with the intended shot and your feet are planted and pointing in the direction of the shot. All of this occurs before you swing the racket. In tennis, you literally put yourself in a position to succeed.
I tried this. I had to learn to turn my shoulders and hips as I ran toward some shots, so I would be in a proper position to hit them. I stumbled and fumbled and may have hit one or two decent shots out of ten. I felt like a giant goofus. The instructors told me not to worry about that.
More than the grueling workout, Bollettieri’s Tennis Academy became a trial of mental endurance. I had to work diligently on a new forehand and a new backhand. I had to focus on my footwork and properly address the ball each time I hit one. Thousands of them. More importantly, I had to learn not get discouraged by all of my failures. Thousands of them. I was relieved when my time at Bollettieri’s was over, but I knew I was acquiring new and better skills and I was eager to try them out.
I returned home and booked some time with my friend Chris. I hit my new and improved forehands off the racket frame. I whiffed on some backhands. I tripped over my own feet trying to “address” the ball. I stink, stank, stunk. After the match Chris grinned at me in the most gleeful way. “I thought you were going to all these tennis camps to get better!”
That’s it. Rub it in.
Perhaps I should just go back to my moderately stinky tennis game, instead of my new and even stinkier one. I still had two tennis camps to go, though. I had to stick with it.
The Tao of Bad Tennis
Next stop: Vic Braden’s Tennis College in southern California. The late Vic Braden was a beloved coach who preached the gospel of tennis, and he was there to instruct us. This place had an array of ball machines so we could stand in a line and work on our forehands and backhands, swing after swing. Players there hit hundreds of balls a day, and thousands during the week. One of the techniques Braden stressed was transferring your weight through a shot, moving forward into it for better power and control. Combined with what I had learned about addressing the ball and setting for a shot, I could feel my game coming together—in the most frustrating fits and starts. I’d hit a couple of good shots, and everything would feel right. Then I would flub one or two or several in a row and it would all come apart. I wasn’t the only one.
Braden also taught us how to serve by tossing the ball out in front and extending for it with the racket our to hit it with more power. When I did this right, I could hit the ball over 100 miles an hour. Wow! That was progress.
Braden’s tennis college was cutting edge: They videotaped our tennis forms and critiqued them for us, showing us what we could improve. Later in the week we each got private face time with the master. One by one we were escorted into an inner sanctum, as if to receive ancient tennis wisdom from a guru monk.
During our meeting I complained to Braden about visiting so many tennis camps in a row, and how I felt I didn’t have time to incorporate what I had learned into my game, before I had to absorb even more. I was a mess of thinking about all of these mechanical things with my footwork, positioning and swing. He fixed me with his wide, friendly grin and said if I take one thing away from his weeklong camp, that was plenty.
I didn’t think much of Braden’s comment as I swatted thousands of balls that week in the California sun. I thought his advice was a cop out. Who wants to take away one thing from a week at a tennis camp, especially after you’ve paid top-dollar to gorge yourself on pro-level instruction? You want your money’s worth, don’t you?
“Don’t even watch where the ball goes,” Braden cheered as we lined up to hit balls out of the machines. Talk about a laid-back Californian. “Just work on your form,” he stressed. Over and over.
Through all the repetition, though, bit by bit and ever so slowly, my shots grew more consistent.
I returned home, more confident in my fledgling game than ever. I was finally getting the hang of my ground strokes and addressing the ball, but now I had other concerns.
I remember a moment, vividly, while playing against Chris. My “new and improved” serve had been spraying all over the place, and I was struggling to get it under control. I was thinking about all of the mechanical things I had to do: throw the ball in front, extend the racket, pronate my forearm. I lined up to hit a serve. Focus. Concentrate. Throw the ball in front and extend and pronate and … Thwack! The ball caromed off my racket frame and skied over the wall to another court. I heard Chris chuckle. Dammit, I couldn’t hit the side of a barn. I was about to scream at my racket and slam it to the ground, which for some reason had never worked for me before. Then I recalled what Vic Braden said: “If you take one thing away …”
OK, so I could forget some of what was taught me. If I took one or two things from each tennis camp, like addressing the ball and the swing, setting myself with good footwork, my game would improve. It was improving. I was naturally editing out the stuff that didn’t work for me and incorporating what did. Then putting my own stamp on it. Now I just had to stick with it.
I tossed the ball in front of me, extended for it, and hit a hard serve that Chris couldn’t hit back. Then another. And another. I still had plenty of flubs and mishits. We had a long, close match that he finally won in a tiebreaker. Not a lot was said afterwards. There were no grins or barbed comments or broom marches. I was closer now and improving, and we both knew it.
One tennis camp on my list remained: Dennis Van der Meer’s on Hilton Head Island, off of the South Carolina coast. Hilton Head is a golfer’s paradise, and here I was at a tennis resort. By now my game was more respectable, though still erratic. I could pass for intermediate in ability. We played a lot of tennis, and Van der Meer taught us about positioning and strategy, in singles and doubles.
I began to understand the geometries of the game. Much of it was positioning, cutting off angles, being in the right place at the right time to hit the right shot, whether you’re at net, halfway, or on the baseline.
Now that I think of it, I was fortunate in the sequence of tennis camps I attended. Or perhaps I was able to take from each what I needed at the time. More likely, the instruction was so good they recognized what I needed.
I returned home and played Chris in a series of matches. Some serves blew past him or handcuffed him. I came to net with more confidence and poise. I missed fewer and fewer shots. More often than not, I was in the right spot. After each flub I practiced the proper form. My forehands were better. My backhand had improved. My volleys, half-volleys and serve became more consistent. I started to win more big points. Then I won more games. Then I managed to win a set. Finally, the last shot of a match went unreturned by my opponent, not me. Yes! I did it! I finally won a match.
Success! After years I had defeated my nemesis on the tennis court!
Now I just had to write the story.
I had always envisioned my elite tennis camp story as a series of short reviews of each resort and the instruction there. I had a ton of material, though. This would be like writing five travel articles in one. I wasn’t sure how to write it. I didn’t know where to begin.
I told my coworkers I just had to get it on paper, or on the computer screen. Then I told them I just had to finish and polish it. But I hadn’t started it. I was standing at the baseline, paralyzed. The deadline fast approached.
I dithered. I procrastinated. I looked at my notes and the tennis camp brochures and found something else to do. The deadline was only a few days away.
My boss peeked in on me one afternoon. “How’s that tennis story coming?”
Yikes. The next morning I closed the door to my office and committed to work on it. I would shut out everything else. I breathed deeply and turned on the computer. I sat there, with my notes and resort brochures by my side. Ready. Set. Frozen.
I must have sat like that for an hour. I did not know what to write. For one of the few times in my life, I stared at a blank screen. I was petrified. I knew I had to throw that figurative ball in the air and hit it, even if I flailed at it. Even if I failed.
I’m not sure how, but after a while I started typing. It wasn’t about the five-star tennis resorts. It was an account of my bumbling matches with Chris—my epic tale of stink, stank, stunkdom,—and how I picked up a few valuable pointers from the tennis camps, managed to play far worse for a while, but stuck with it. I improved my game through a slow and painful osmosis, until I could finally play competitive matches and actually won.
Holy cow! I did it. I wrote that daunting story. Somehow I was able to divide my chronicle of improvement into sections describing the resorts and their regimens and what I had gained from each.
I toiled the next two days on editing and honing it, over and over, until it was ready to show my boss. And I hesitated. This was so different from any other travel story we had done. I wondered if my boss would like it. Or his bosses. Or would they conclude they had thrown their money away on me? I showed it to a coworker, who eagerly convinced me to submit it. The next day’s deadline sealed the decision. I had no choice.
I gulped and placed the manuscript on my boss’ desk.
He loved it. His bosses loved it. The art director decided to do something different with the story as well. She illustrated it, with humorous drawings of me playing tennis—or attempting to. The feature was a hit, partly because the subject matter appealed to some of our readers, partly because it was a story framed by my matches against my friend, and partly because of the illustrations. It was a different and fun look for us. The story stood out.
I knew back then that my story wasn’t just about the tennis resorts. It wasn’t just about learning better forehands and backhands and volleys and smashes and addressing the ball and doing the necessary footwork. It was about the story of my matches with Chris.
What I didn’t realize then was that it was about even more than that: It was about the process of learning to become better at something.
It was about the path to success. Any success.
I learned a lot about tennis from researching and writing that story. I also learned a lot about life from tennis. I stuck with it, even when I wasn’t good at it. I learned the discipline required to become competent and then proficient at something. To learn that discipline, I had to overcame a fear of failure. And I learned I could succeed at being different.
I found a niche at the magazine that was different but acceptable, because it was related to the topics we covered. Enough people there played and wrote about golf. I was the only one on the editorial staff who played tennis. I became the resident expert in something I was hardly an expert at. And even though I stumbled through that story—sometimes badly—it helped me to stand out.
In tennis and in life, you will have more success if you address opportunities as you would any tennis shot—Hello, Opportunity! You will have more success when addressing opportunities if you are ready and prepared to take advantage of them. You will be ready and prepared if you put yourself in a good position. You will be in a good position if you set yourself properly for it. You will set yourself properly if you do the necessary work to prepare for it, be it footwork or research or studying for an exam.
You will have more success if you approach your tasks in this diligent and earnest way. Then follow through on them. You will have more success in doing this if you practice, over and over, and don’t grow discouraged by all the times that you will fail. And you will fail. That’s OK, because by failing again and again, as I did, you will learn to get over it. Your failures will teach you how to succeed.
This is how you can succeed in life. Superior timing isn’t just about athletics or hand-eye coordination or a having a brilliant mind. It isn’t just about sales and marketing prowess. Truly great timing is about being there, and being ready to take advantage of an opportunity that might arise. You really do put yourself in a position to succeed.
A few years after I wrote that tennis story, I succeeded my boss as the editor in chief of the magazine. The owners of the magazine told me the primary reason they hired me was the story I wrote on tennis camps, and how I had finally won a match against my friend. They liked it and remembered it because it was different. It told a story. They wanted to tell more stories of people living successful lives—and in different ways.
Being different by doing that story, staying dedicated to working on something and improving my skills, paved my way to raises and a promotion, then more raises. More than two decades later, I still leverage the opportunities that arise because I once ventured to be little different.
Are You Lucky, Really?
Like many sports or hobbies, tennis can be a microcosm of life. In other words, it can be infuriating.
Every so often in a tennis match, the ball will hit the top of the net, or the “net cord” as it is called, and drop to one side or the other. It’s almost comical how something moving so fast slaps to halt and then drops, seemingly at random. One player is joyous inside and the other cannot fathom the injustice. There’s even a protocol of tennis etiquette. The player who wins the point puts up a hand, as if to say, “Sorry. Lucky shot,” while the other may place hands on hips, look to the sky and curse his or her rotten luck.
I am convinced it is no luck at all.
I’ve found that when I am playing well and doing the “little things” like moving my feet and staying focused, I tend to win those “lucky” points. When I am not doing these things and hitting from my heels, I play poorly and lose those points.
Almost always, the person playing better tennis, who is better prepared and set for a shot, who is moving his or her feet and moving forward through a shot, wins those points. The physics is indisputable: Harder and higher shots tend to fall over the net, while weaker and lower shots do not.
Simply put, you make your own luck, in tennis and in life. You get the “lucky” break, the job or promotion not because of any stroke of luck, but because you placed yourself in the right place at the right time, talked to the right person, followed through on a phone call or a presentation, and performed the necessary work to put yourself in a position to succeed.
Just one of these things can cause that “lucky” break, but you never know which one it will be. So you owe it to yourself to do the necessary preparation. And practice. You put yourself in the best position to succeed whenever the opportunity arises. Perhaps you are even a bit different.
Have you noticed? People who are different seem to get a lot “lucky” breaks as well.
The tennis game I developed is that of a server-and-volleyer. That means I serve and come to net, or “rush the net” after most serves and any shots that put my opponent at a disadvantage. The idea is to force bad or weak shots and be in position to capitalize on them with volleys that are hit out of the air. Tennis greats John McEnroe and Pete Sampras were hall-of-fame serve-and-volleyers. They always seemed to be in the right spot to hit an easy shot.
With today’s faster courts and more advanced racket technologies, the serve-and-volley style has faded in professional tennis. Serve-and-volleyers have become rare, because it is almost suicidal to rush the net after a serve. Today’s top players have superior ground strokes that are hit from the back line of the court, or the baseline. This trend has carried over into amateur, club-level tennis.
I’m no professional tennis player. I am an intermediate club-level player at best. So while all the other amateur players are contributing to the norm of baseliners who hit groundstrokes, I come to net. I’m a bit different this way, and it doesn’t hurt me much at that level. It makes me better, largely because I play better when I play that way. I have played matches against players who possessed superior skills, and I have played competitively and on occasion I have even won those matches. My opponents weren’t accustomed to someone coming to net and forcing the action and making them respond so rapidly. I put pressure on them, largely because I was different. And sure, I hit some “lucky” shots that I just happened to be in position to take advantage of.
My aggressive style of play also puts pressure on me to play quicker and react better, which means I need to be super-diligent with my footwork and shot preparation. That gets my adrenalin flowing. I’m engaged and in the moment. Sometimes I’m even in the flow.
For some strange reason, when you become so focused on something so you get in the flow or are in zone, you become even luckier! I wonder how that happens.
Don’t Stand Out Too Much
The most successful difference makers aren’t just the ones who choose to stand out. They do so within the accepted norms, or they tweak the norms by doing something commonly called “pushing the envelope.” Push the boundaries of the norm ever so slightly, and you will find out what is acceptable and what is not.
Contemporary tennis players who were very good at serve-and-volleying, like Pete Sampras and Roger Federer, aren’t considered pure serve-and-volleyers. They didn’t rush the net all the time. They are considered more “hybrid” players who also are very good at hitting ground strokes. They had to be, because they could not succeed in today’s game by only being great at serving-and-volleying. Their games were not completely different from the norm, as they also possessed superb baseline abilities. Serving and volleying well made them different, and that helped them to dominate.
If you’re totally different, people can’t relate. They can’t connect with you. But if you take something like acceptable fashions and do something different with it … tweak it in some way—you will have pioneered something and will be regarded for it. You give people something they remember you by. Nearly all popular musicians or actors or athletes aren’t just like another of their kind. They may be comparable in some ways, but they all also stand out in some way. Maybe it’s their tone, maybe it’s their looks, maybe it’s their style of play. It’s what makes their mark, their brand. It’s what makes them great.
If you want to make a life from being different in whatever field you choose, you also have to offer something of value. It could be a related service to others but with an additional value, like free pickup and delivery. It could be quality. It could be expediency. It could be more payment options, or something someone else charges for but you for can do for free. It could be your integrity. Whatever it is, people have to want it.
Combine this with being different and putting yourself in a position to succeed, and you can succeed at anything over time. People might even say you are lucky.
Categories: The Really Good Life
This is such a comprehensive and well written article on the progression of obtaining skills in tennis. I was fascinated with your story, from beginning to end. It made me chuckle, smile and sometimes laugh imagining your experiences at those famous tennis facilities. I have always wanted to venture to those camps and through reading your story, I felt like I was there with you. You made it a very visual and often times surreal reading experience. I will bookmark your story so I can share it with some of my students, to keep them motivated in their tennis journey. I am happy to hear that you finally beat your nemesis, Chris, and were able to continue to improve and play more advanced players then him after that. Thank you very much for posting such a great read! I enjoyed reading it very much! Best wishes! Don
Thank you for your feedback, Don! Please do share with your students. Tennis is a wonderful game to learn how to succeed on the court and enjoy the game of life.